Thursday, September 15, 2016

Coming to the End

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Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 is the third in a group of sonnets about the coming of old age (the others being 71, 72, and 74). My initial analysis led me to believe that the greatest difference in content, however, is that Sonnet 73 is composed entirely of a series of metaphors. The speaker suggests to the reader that he is each of the descriptions that he gives. The first quatrain describes different aspects of a tree at the end of the fall season: yellow leaves, cold wind shaking the leaves off of the tree, empty branches where birds once sang. The onset of winter implies that the speaker is nearing the end of his life. The second quatrain describes the speaker as the last light of day, making the darkness of night into death. The third quatrain describes the speaker as a fire lying on the “ashes of youth,” again implying that the speaker is not yet dead, but very close. 

Psychological Narrative
Sparknotes suggests that each quatrain actually implies something different about the speaker’s anxieties. It claims that the first metaphor of a winter day, “emphasizes the harshness and emptiness of old age,” and the second metaphor of twilight, “emphasizes not the chill of old age, but rather the gradual fading of the light of youth.” However, both concepts of changing seasons and changing times of day imply cycles that will repeat themselves. Since “youth will not come again for the speaker,” the metaphors are somewhat incomplete. The final metaphor is necessary to show the finality that death imposes on old age because the same fire can never be re-lit once the ashes go out.

True Colors
Richard Hovey claims that Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 has been misinterpreted to focus on the pleasures of each metaphor: “Fall with the abundance and the harvest of the season, twilight with rest from labor, firelight with conviviality, warmth and good cheer.” These pleasures bring warm colors to mind, such as red and orange. However, the sonnet actually produces images that occur after such cheerful ideas. For example, “yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang upon those boughs” (line 2), twilight occurs after the sun has already set, and ashes are typically black or grey. The focus is not on youth, but rather on the end of life, “an inevitable part of existence as we know it.” Hovey claims that the true focus of the poem is on the value of enduring love, and by skipping over the tragic elements of the metaphors the reader misses the point of the poem.
“Sonnet 73” by Richard Hovey from the journal College English, Vol. 23, NO. 8 (May 1962), pp. 672-673, published by the National Council of Teachers of English, found on JSTOR at

Visual Representation
(Google images)

Similar to the “misinterpretation” addressed by Hovey, most of the images that appear in a Google search for “Sonnet 73” contain bright, warm colors of fall, sunsets, and fire. These images more accurately represent one of the metaphors created in the sonnet. Although they do contain some orange for a few of the leaves, the branches are sparse and wind is obviously shaking the leaves free. By adding text in an “archaic” font, the focus shifts towards the onset of winter rather than the fall that once was.

This is actually Rosie Sanders' artwork. The full artistic interpretation of Sonnet 73 can be found on her blog:

1 comment:

  1. Interesting psychological analysis! I had not considered how most things relating to seasons are cyclical, and therefore there is a hope that there can be a new beginning. With fire, however, there is no cycle. You can't build a fire with just ashes. (Also, I love that illustration you used!)